Review: Science and the Doctrine of Creation

Science and the Doctrine of Creation, Edited by Geoffrey H. Fulkerson and Joel Thomas Chopp, afterword by Alister E. McGrath. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2021.

Summary: A study of ten modern theologians and how each engaged science in light of the doctrine of creation.

Creation and science. These are often viewed in conflict and the discussion of how these relate is often a contentious space. This work takes a more constructive approach based on the idea that the doctrine of creation consists of far more than how humans came to exist. We fail to consider the God who has created, what is entailed in the act of creating, and what the nature and end of what is created.

Rather than seeking to articulate the doctrine of creation, this work considers ten theologians from the last two centuries, how they engaged the science of their day, and brought their particular grasp of the doctrine of creation to bear on this engagement. There are both recurring themes and divergences among these ten voices. Each chapter begins with a brief biography of the theologian, a discussion averaging about twenty pages, with resources for further reading at the conclusion of the chapter.

The theologians discussed and authors of the chapters are:

William Burt Pope (Fred Sanders). Pope distinguished between primary creation, in which God calls all things into existence, and secondary creation, the formation of an ordered universe, which both scripture and science may inform.

Abraham Kuyper (Craig Bartholomew). Kuyper both affirms creation, common grace and the image of God that grounds the scientific enterprise, and how nonregenerate thought in all dimensions of thought is flawed. For Kuyper, this meant neither unqualified endorsement of evolution nor uncritical opposition.

B. B. Warfield (Bradley J. Gundlach). Warfield hosted Kuyper’s Princeton Stone Lectures. Many have claimed Warfield for eolution. Gundlach offers a more nuanced picture, emphasizing both Warfield’s humble and open approach to the science of his day while focusing on creation (including the idea of mediate creation), providence and supernaturalism.

Rudolf Bultmann (Joshua W. Jipp). This chapter looks at how Bultmann’s demythologization project applied to creation, with the conclusion that scripture doesn’t give us an objective view of the world or ontology. It is rather “faith in man’s present determination by God.” Jipp prefers the concord Alvin Plantinga sees between science and faith to the bifurcated view of Bultmann.

Karl Barth (Katherine Sonderegger). Barth had little to say about theology and natural science. Sonderegger contrasts Barth and Schleiermacher, emphasizing Barth’s doctrine of creation as one that “lays claim to the whole of reality.”

T. F. Torrance (Kevin J. Vanhoozer). Torrance propounded a “kataphysical” theology that brought together ontology and epistemology, denying a divergence between the way things appear and the way they are. Central to all of this Christ, the God-man, who is homoousios, of the same substance with the Father and the Spirit.

Jürgen Moltmann (Stephen N. Williams). Williams explores Moltmann’s “open system” doctrine of God and his vision of a common environment of science and theology.

Wolfhart Pannenberg (Christoph Schwöbel). Drawing on Faraday’s “field of force,” Pannenberg developed a theology of nature that is neither mechanistic nor a “God of the gaps” but rooted in the unity of all reality.

Robert Jenson (Stephen John Wright). Drawing on narrative and history, ideas of time and eternity, and Christology, Jenson contended both science and theology focused on the same reality, the world of creation.

Colin E. Gunton (Murray A. Rae). Gunton’s theological career focused on a reinvigorated understanding of the Trinity. Rae focused on how Gunton’s understanding of the Triune creator affirms creation ex nihilo, a contingent creation, and science as an extension of the human cultural mandate.

One of the themes running through a number of these chapters was the importance of understanding the nature of God to understand the nature of creation. Also, a number of the chapters countered the “non-overlapping magisteria” idea with a unitive vision of theology and science grounded God’s being and activity. One consequence is the intelligibility of the world, both through revelation and science.

This is a valuable resource for the science-theology conversation that moves beyond evolution debates. Both the theologians featured and those who write of them model humble appreciation of both the creative work of God and scientific inquiry. Not only do these contributions underscore, as Alister McGrath notes in the afterword, the coherence of Christian faith, but they highlight the glory of the Creator in the creation.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: God Has Chosen

God Has Chosen, Mark R. Lindsay. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2020.

Summary: A survey of the development of the doctrine of election throughout Christian history, including discussions of human freedom, those who are not of the elect, and the status of Israel as chosen.

The idea of election, that God chooses a people for God’s self, is one precious to some, an assurance of belonging and of God having done something we could not do. It is threatening to others–how may I know I am among the elect, and how can God save some and not others?

From the writers of scripture to the present day, the church’s theologians have wrestled with these ideas. What Mark R. Lindsay does in this work is to trace the development of this doctrine throughout Christian history. After an introduction in which he differentiates his approach from other contemporary scholars, he begins with some of the key texts on election from both testaments, emphasizing that any idea of chosenness has to draw upon what this meant for Israel. This is followed by a consideration of the early fathers: Ignatius of Antioch, Origen, Cyprian, and Augustine. This was a formative period for the church’s doctrine and the corresponding question of who is “in” and who is “out” that reflect their convictions about election.

In subsequent chapters Lindsay considers two or three key thinkers in each chapter. Chapter three focuses on Aquinas and Duns Scotus, where the elect and citizens of the state were more or less one and the same. Chapter four focuses on three Reformation figures: Calvin, Beza, and Arminius. Striking here is the relatively limited space devoted to this by Calvin, the expansion and extension of Calvin’s thought by Beza, and the responses of Arminius regarding human agency and God’s salvation.

Chapter five addresses early modernity and Lindsay offers an interesting pairing of Schliermacher and J. N. Darby. On the face, they could not be more different but Lindsay argues for an expansive vision of God’s electing will as something they had in common. Chapter six focuses on Barth alone, and the development of his thought over the course of his career, particularly as his thought focused on Christ and the community formed in him, and its resistance to Nazi ideology. The final chapter then considers the Holocaust. If God chose the Jewish people in some way, what then do we make of the near extermination of that people? Does this deny the existence of God, or is the remnant that survives one more evidence of God’s continuing relation with this people? Or is this one more place to argue for a free will theodicy? And how ought Christians think of the Jewish people given the dangers of supercessionism?

Throughout the book, Lindsay explores the differing ways thinkers understood the elect and “the reprobate.” In his conclusion, he shows his own hand in expressing a tentative hopeful universalism grounded in our own incapacity to fully understand the mind of God. He cites Revelation 22:17: “Let everyone who is thirsty come. Let anyone who wishes take the water of life” (Italics in the author’s citation of this verse). The author warns against “definitive pronouncements,” which is warranted. Given the testimony of the whole of scripture, and particularly that of our Lord, I think there might also be a caution against “speculative suggestions” that may soften the plain warnings of scripture. I believe we may hope and find comfort in the wideness of God’s electing grace while never presuming with regard to the warnings of judgment.

However one sorts these things out, this work is helpful in offering incisive summaries and comparisons of the thought of different key figures as well as an extensive bibliography. For a survey of two thousand years of thought, Lindsay has presented the reader with a work that is at once introductory and of significant depth on this important doctrine.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: The Doctrine of Creation

The Doctrine of Creation: A Constructive Kuyperian Approach, Bruce Riley Ashford and Craig G. Bartholomew. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2020.

Summary: A study of the doctrine of creation, demonstrating how this doctrine is foundational and related to everything else in Christian theology.

The doctrine of creation has often been eclipsed in various ways in recent years. It has come under attack by some scientists and the arguments about the timing and efforts to harmonize biblical and scientific accounts have overshadowed the broader implications of this doctrine. The ongoing struggle of Christianity with gnostic tendencies have led to de-emphasis on the physical creation for some spiritualized, disembodied version of Christianity. For others, a Christocentric or cross-centric approach to theology also has led to de-emphasis on the doctrine of creation.

Ashford and Bartholomew draw upon the Kuyperian tradition in which the doctrine of creation is foundational and has implications for everything else while engaging other theologians and differing viewpoints in a constructive theological approach to this doctrine. This is one of those cases where they show as well as tell, not only making the argument, but showing the connections of this crucial doctrine to our understanding of culture, of God’s providence, of redemption and our eschatological hope, centered in the new creation.

They begin by outlining the doctrine of creation as an article of faith and how this relates to our doctrine of scripture and doctrine of God, and the fundamental idea of the goodness of creation, shaping our relationship with the physical world. They then engage in historical theology, surveying all the important theologians from the church fathers up through the modern period in two chapters. Before exegeting the early chapters of Genesis, a chapter is devoted to the omnipotence of God, the nature of evil, and the implications the idea of ex nihilo creation, which the authors support.

The next four chapters (5-8) walk through Genesis 1-3. They observe that from Genesis 1 alone we learn:

  • the existence of light;
  • the reality of time, days, seasons, years, and history;
  • the three great places of our world: sky, sea, and land;
  • the distinction between birds, sea creatures, and land animals;
  • the extraordinary world of flora and fruit trees and their importance in the food chain;
  • humankind as similar to and yet distinct from the other creatures and with unique capacities;
  • humankind as called to responsible stewardship of the creation;
  • humankind as gendered and inherently relational; and
  • humankind as inherently religious–that is, made for God. (p. 171)

The subsequent chapters explore Genesis 2, a discussion of the “heaven” in “heaven and earth” and the fall.

The authors then turn to other doctrines and the influence of the doctrine of creation. First is the influence of creation on our understanding of culture. A highlight of this chapter included a vocational focus on the rise of modern science, the art of Makoto Fujimura, and philospher Alvin Plantinga. The chapter on providence, “Creatio Continua,” was the highlight for me in a book full of treasures. In particular, they delineate the threefold providence of God as preservation, accompanying, and ruling. They even throw in a striking insight of the providence of God in the Septuagint, which gave a whole dictionary of Greek theological terms on which the early Christian movement could draw. Creation and the new creation are vitally intertwined, not simply as the beginning and end of the story. To what degree will the new creation restore, repristinate, or replace the old? And how should what is coming shape the way the church lives as disciples in the present.

The last chapter on “Creation And…” is a tour de force as the authors offer some of the best delineations I have seen in a few pages each of creation and…philosophy, the table (thinking about the implications of creation for how we eat), time, science, the self, and human dignity. An appendix follows in which Bartholomew and Michael Goheen outline in enumerated points the contours of a missional neo-Calvinism that shows in concise form how creation and the redemptive mission of God are integral to one another.

As noted, this work shows the richness of the doctrine of creation in its implications for all of life. The insets in the text may seem distracting at first but offer crucial theological elaboration of the discussion in each chapter. This is a work to be read slowly and reflectively. In the tradition of Calvin and Kuyper, one will be rewarded with deepening wonder in the greatness of God and delight in God’s creation and its implications for all of life.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: J. I. Packer: His Life and Thought

J. I. Packer: His Life and Thought, Alister McGrath. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2020.

Summary: An account of the theologian’s faith, life, and theological engagement.

J. I. Packer was one of my personal theological heroes. His impact on my life came primarily through the book Knowing God, which I read during my student days. As a young Christian, I discovered that the chief end of our lives as well as the work of theology is that we know, love, and glorify God, and not just know about him. The first time through, I read a few pages at a time, stopped, reflected, and prayed in wonder at the greatness, majesty, holiness, and love of God. It is one of those books I’ve re-read several times. I only heard Packer speak once, giving a series of lectures on revival in Ann Arbor, contrasting Jonathan Edwards and Charles Finney, along with an exposition of Psalm 85 as a prayer for revival. The talks were marked by precision of thought and warmth of devotion.

Reading this account of the life and thought of Packer by Alister McGrath, I came to understand that the qualities I appreciated in his lectures and his books reflected his central passion for theological education and catechesis for the good of the church. McGrath traces this thread through his books and thought and his career first in Bristol, then Oxford, then briefly again at Bristol, and finally at Regent in Canada. In fact, McGrath alternates chapters on his life with ones on aspects of his theological work.

He recounts Packer’s early life, his spiritual awakening and early embrace of the theology of the fathers and their ancient wisdom. He describes the relationship with D. Martyn Lloyd Jones and the development of the Puritan Studies Conferences, and their later falling out. At Tyndale Hall in Bristol, Packer comes into his own as a “theological educationalist.” This period marked Packer’s early efforts in publishing, centered around the editorial work on the first edition of The New Bible Dictionary and his first book on Fundamentalism and the Word of God. McGrath includes marvelous material here on how Packer’s devotional life fed both his pastoral and theological work.

Packer’s return to Oxford in the 1960’s as Warden of Latimer House came at a time of ferment within Anglican evangelicalism. McGrath features Packer’s marvelous reply to Bishop Robinson’s Honest to God, the crisis in 1966 with Lloyd Jones leading to the cooling of their relationship and the Keele conference of 1967 defining an evangelical presence within Anglicanism. A key focus in Packer’s thought is theology for the life of the church. After this conference, Packer became convinced that it was time to move on from Latimer. He returned to take up the leadership of Tyndale Hall in a time of crisis leading to a merger creating Trinity College, with him no longer as principal. Time for writing led to a series of articles that became Knowing God.

One of the personal highlights of McGrath’s account was reading about James Sire’s visit with Packer and offer to acquire the U.S. rights of the book for InterVarsity Press, through which the book came into the hands of this young college student and many others becoming one of IVP’s all-time best selling works. By the 1977 Nottingham Conference, however, it became apparent that Packer was increasingly out of step with the younger evangelicals in England. This opened the door to Canada, and Regent College, and the opportunities for Packer to more fully pursue his ideas of theological education for the church, which he did as faculty and in retirement until his death in 2020.

One of the fascinating aspects developed by McGrath is Packer’s conservatism with an irenic streak. Packer was committed to the idea “test everything; hold onto the good.” He believe the good traditions of the past could deliver us from the idiosyncrasies of the present, all under the authority of the Bible. Hence his emphasis on the Reformers and Puritan studies. This put him at variance with others, particularly at two points: the ministry of women and his views of eternal punishment. Yet he also join the Evangelicals and Catholics Together initiative, finding the places of common ground while delineating theological difference with clarity. It strikes me you needed someone like Packer to do this to avoid making a theological hash of the whole affair.

McGrath has given us a wonderful summary of the life and thought of Packer. Indeed, we see how what Packer thought shaped how he lived. Packer believed in theological education as not merely an academic exercise but as existing for the strengthening of the church in the knowledge of God. McGrath helps us see how the whole trajectory of Packer’s life was shaped by these commitments. It also leaves me two questions to ponder. One is, amid a changing world, what must be conserved? The second is, amid the powerful and competing influences of our culture, how might we carry forward Packer’s commitment to catechesis, the formation of Christians in thought, word, and deed?

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Sinless Flesh

Sinless Flesh: A Critique of Karl Barth’s Fallen Christ, Rafael Nogueira Bello. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2020.

Summary: Drawing upon the doctrines of inseparable operations, grace of union and habitual grace, and original sin, argues against the contention of Barth and Torrance that the Son of God assumed fallen human flesh in the Incarnation.

You probably never discussed this question in Sunday school: was the human nature assumed by the Son of God sinless or fallen? We may have discussed this in seminary, but if so, it made no impression on me. Nevertheless, it distinguishes two giants of the twentieth century, Karl Barth and Thomas Torrance from most theologians in church history including Augustine, Aquinas, and Calvin.

The author of this monograph argues that Barth and Torrance get it wrong. He doesn’t see this as heresy because both affirm the orthodox convictions that Christ was without sin and the relation of the two natures in one person. However, he would argue that this proposal has impact upon trinitarian relation, weakens the orthodox understanding of the hypostatic union of the two natures, and reflects a flawed understanding of original since with implications as to how Christ can act as the second Adam on our behalf.

Bello draws upon three doctrines to highlight the deficiencies in the idea of the Son of man assuming a fallen nature or what is considered non assumptus. First, the doctrine of inseparable operations is the idea that all three persons of the Trinity act as one. The assumption of a fallen nature would require separate operations of the Spirit to perfect what is effected by the Father and Son. Likewise in orthodox theology, the grace of union precedes habitual grace in the life of the incarnate Son. This is reversed in Barth and Torrance involves a growth in grace before the grace of union but raises questions about the hypostatic union of these natures if one grows into union with the other. Finally, the non assumptus view reflects a defective view of original sin. If, as is held in post-Calvin Reformed theology, original sin includes original guilt (that all of us sinned in Adam and are therefore guilty with him, then assuming a fallen nature means assuming Adam’s guilt and raises the question of whether Christ can act as the second Adam through whom we are made righteous (Romans 5:19).

Bello makes a strong case if one accepts the logical inferences drawn in his theological discussion. My hunch is that Barth and Torrance would not accept these inferences. At the beginning of this monograph, Bello quotes Gregory of Nazianzus, who in another context stated, “that which He has not assumed He has not healed.” He sees Barth and Torrance applying this idea to the fallen human nature. I fail to be convinced by Bello’s argument that a Son who had assumed a sinless human nature could “learn obedience” and be like us in all ways except for sin. It seems that one who bears Adam’s guilt without recapitulating Adam’s sin but rather bear’s humanity’s sin and Adamic guilt is truly the second Adam whose obedience makes the many righteous.

What my challenge is, being new to this discussion, is thinking through his argument. Does non-assumptus necessarily compromise inseparable operations? Does non-assumptus jeopardize our understanding of the hypostatic union of the two natures. Does original sin imply original guilt (which Calvin did not affirm)? And even so, does this call into question Christ’s fitness to serve as the second Adam? Bello makes a careful and rigorous argument deserving careful consideration. It both made me think, but also reflect on how what we believe about one thing has implications for other matters. I am also grateful for the irenic spirit of Bello’s argument. Difference is not always heresy, and one’s perception of a real weakness in the thought of another does not, for this scholar, diminish his respect for the substantial contribution of Barth and Torrance to the theological enterprise. All in all, this is a fine monograph and I look forward to further theological writing from this scholar!

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Holiness

Holiness, John Webster. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2003

Summary: A theology of holiness, beginning with holiness in the theological enterprise and then thinking about the holiness of God, the church, and the individual.

Many treatments of the theme of holiness either focus on or begin with the holiness of God. John Webster takes what seems to me a novel, but important approach and begins with the holiness of theology. That is, he considers “A Christian theology of holiness is an exercise of holy reason.” He begins with a critique of modernity’s idea of “natural reason” as “transcendent, ignoring the noetic effects of the fall. He argues in the doing of theology, this exercise of holy reason is critical:

“Christian theology is a particular instance of reason’s holiness. Here too–as in all truthful thinking–we are to trace what happens as reason is transformed by the judging, justifying, and sanctifying work of the Triune God. The sanctification of reason, moreover, involves a measure of difference: reason’s transformation goes hand-in-hand with non-conformity. Holy reason is eschatological reason, reason submitting to the process of the renewal of all things as sin and falsehood are set aside, idolatry is reproved, and the new creation is confessed with repentance and delight” (pp. 11-12).

Webster then turns to three aspects of holiness in scripture: the holiness of God, of the church, and of the individual. Beginning with the holiness of God, Webster considers the holiness of God as triune: Father, Son, and Spirit, holy in all God’s attributes and works. This holiness is evidenced in the establishing of holy relationships with his people, redeemed to be holy through the Triune God’s initiative.

He then turns to the church, described as a sanctorum communio. He grounds the holiness of the church in the electing, reconciling, and perfecting work of God, a theme of the grace of God in the holiness of the people of God that runs through this book. This holiness is evident in all of the church’s actions as they confess the name of the Triune God.

Finally, he discusses the holiness of the Christian. Here, too, holiness from beginning to end is the work of the Trinity, likewise in electing, reconciling and perfecting. This is through faith, both in death to sin and renewal of life expressed in freedom, obedience, and love, toward the end of fellowship with God.

Each section begins with a set of propositions which Webster unpacks in a treatment which, though concise is an eloquent and deep exploration of holiness. It reflects a Reformed vision that roots holiness in God’s gracious initiative. This is a slim book worthy of more than one reading and a good introduction to the work of a fine theologian.

Review: Original Sin and the Fall

Original Sin and the Fall (Spectrum Multiview Books), edited by J. B. Stump and Chad Meister. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2020.

Summary: An overview of five different views of original sin and the fall, with responses by each contributor to the other views.

Christians have traditionally believed that the first human beings enjoyed “original righteousness.” They were sinless and able not to sin. Then sin entered the world through Adam and Eve and has tainted all human beings such that only God can overcome our “fallen” condition through Christ. This “taint” is what is understood as original sin. Beyond this broad explanation, Christians have disagreed on many of the specifics of this doctrine. Does original sin entail original guilt? Are humans, even under prevenient grace, able to contribute anything to their salvation? With the greater, but hardly universal acceptance of evolution, how are we to understand the Genesis accounts of original sin?

This volume explores all these questions. Proponents of five views that reflect a broad spectrum of Christian thought contribute to this discussion:

Hans Madueme sets forth the traditional Reformed-Augustinian view, affirming original sin and original guilt with death and the judgment of God following, irrespective of our acts.

Oliver Crisp represents a modified Reformed view in basic agreement with the Reformed position except for not affirming original guilt.

Joel Green speaks for the Wesleyan view which affirms original sin but holds the individual guilty for only their own sins and sees sin not only as depravity but also disease.

Andrew Louth, a convert to Eastern Orthodoxy describes the Eastern Orthodox understanding, which stresses ancestral rather than original sin and focus not on fall and redemption but the arc from creation to deification, within which this sin occurs.

Tatha Wiley speaks for a reconceived view, drawing upon Catholic theologian Bernard Lonergan. Original sin is reconceived as a failure of authenticity, a failure to act upon what one rationally understands. We stand in need of intellectual, moral, and religious conversions. She advocates for a new approach contending biblical accounts reflect a pre-scientific view of the world and modern advances require a different formulation.

Each contributor responds to all the others. Each is gracious to the others, distinguishing their own from other views without polemics. The editors briefly introduce the discussion and then step out of the way.

A few observations. Madueme offers a statement of the Reformed position at its best and not a caricature. Crisp, while I think the best in framing his views seems a bit of a compromise–halfway between Reformed and Wesleyan, not quite either. Joel Green’s distinctive contribution is as a biblical rather than systematic theologian. He offers an interesting discussion on what Genesis 1-3 and other texts say and don’t say about original sin. Louth, rooting his work in the Eastern fathers speaks from a different framework, focused more on the arc of creation to theosis than focusing on sin. Here the focus is rather on death. Wiley’s was the least familiar to me and seems untethered from the biblical accounts. Further, while engaging science, as Crisp notes, she does not explain “what compelling reasons there are for the kind of doctrinal reconstruction she advocates.”

The discussion helps us to understand the interconnected nature of Christian doctrine, how our understanding of God, our anthropology, our soteriology, and eschatology all connect. I’m reminded of the pressing questions I’ve been asked by those of exploring faith of how we can be held responsible for Adam’s sin, or even our own sinful nature from birth. We see different ways of answering that may offer better language and explanations. This is a valuable adjunct to any study of systematic theology.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: The Breadth of Salvation

The Breadth of Salvation, Tom Greggs. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2020.

Summary: An exploration of the extravagant breadth of God’s saving work in all of its dimensions.

The work of the theologian has often been described as “thinking great thoughts of God.” This concise work does just that in regard to thinking about the breadth of God’s saving work, that we often limit with our models and distinctions and limited perspectives.

Greggs begins by considering our models and images of Christ’s saving work on the cross. He reminds us that it is Christ and not a particular model or interpretation who saves. He also refuses to either dispense with or reduce his understanding of the work of the cross to a particular model or image. He lists these all and describes them as a feast, as a buffet from which he hopes to enjoy all.

He then turns to the breadth of salvation in the society of God, the church. We often think of salvation in personal terms, and in vertical terms in relation to God. But God has saved a people, dealing not only with our alienation from God, but also from others. He considers the breadth of the Holy Spirit’s work in reconciling people to each other across all our differences.

He goes a step further to explore the grace of God to the world. He specifically excludes universalism, but also emphasizes the grace of God over human actions, seeing the latter as responses to grace which comes in a variety of ways, and often to those who seem the least deserving or likely. He reminds us of the breadth of human sinfulness–for all of us, and that assurance comes in the act of repentance, as we find rest in the pardon of God and not anything we have done.

This leads him to address further the specific matter of repentance. He observes that the priority is on repentance as turning to Christ rather than from sin. He observes the welcome of Jesus to tax collectors and sinners. I’m reminded of the story of Zacchaeus. Jesus decides he must eat with him leading Zacchaeus to extravagant reparations for all his tax gouging. In both this chapter and the last, he explores the question both in the gospels and our present day of who is on the inside, and who on the outside. He invites us all to humility and wonder at the breadth of our salvation.

It may be that some are laboring under uncertainty with regard to their own salvation, whether they have believed properly or done the right things. It may be that we have focused too much on being reconciled to God and failed to recognize how God has saved a people reconciled to each other. It may be that we have drawn lines between who is inside, who is outside. Greggs offers encouragement to all of the wonderful fullness of salvation transcending our fears and doubts, our narrow perspectives and the lines we draw between who is “in” and who is “out.”

Some might criticize this work for universalism. I see nothing of God forcing his grace on the unwilling. Rather, I understood this work as an invitation to leave the boundaries to God, to extend the extravagant breadth of Christ’s work without distinction, allowing Christ to call whom he wills to repentance and faith. I understand this as an invitation to think great thoughts of a great God’s great salvation.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Approaching the Atonement

Approaching the Atonement

Approaching the AtonementOliver D. Crisp. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2020.

Summary: A study of different models of the atonement, explaining and critiquing each model, focusing on the “mechanism” of atonement, the issue of violence, and the author’s own preferred approach.

The atonement. This is the idea that Christ’s died for our sin and thus made possible reconciliation with God. The question that has arisen throughout Christian history is how Christ’s death accomplishes that reconciling work. What is the “mechanism” of atonement? What are the different models that have been held through history and how do they differ? How to we reconcile the presence or even necessity of violence in these models with a loving God? Are there ways that the models compatible that might point to a greater whole?

This slim volume offers a survey of different models of the atonement formulated throughout history, clear explanations of each, critiques and possible responses of each, and how these models might be relate to each other. He begins with patristic accounts of the atonement, those of Irenaeus and Athanasius. He then turns to the ransom or Christus Victor accounts, Anselm’s satisfaction account, moral exemplarism proposed through history from Abelard to John Hick, versions of the penal substitutionary, governmental and vicarious penitence doctrines, approaches that may be described as “mash-ups” or “kaleidoscopic.” Amid the discussion, the author takes a chapter to discuss the problem of atoning violence implicit in several of these models. He concludes with a recent proposal, the union or participation proposal that he favors.

Several aspects of this book make it an ideal introduction to discussions on the atonement. One is the conciseness and clarity of Crisp’s explanation of each model, including distinguishing between variants on a model, like versions of penal substitution that focus alternatively on the substitute taking punishment in place of the guilty versus taking on the penal consequences of sin, but not the actual punishment. He also offers helpful discussions of atoning violence, including an emphasis that the atonement was accomplished by the Triune God, not setting Father against Son in ways that separate the unity of the three-personed God. He also explores the double effect response and the distinction between atonement proper, and crucifixion, which are often conflated.

He uses memorable images in his discussion, such as the idea of “one theory to rule them all,” most often in reference to penal substitution, referencing a classic article by recently deceased J.I. Packer that also serves as an example of a “mashup” approach that recognize various models as aspects or facets of the atonement. His discussion of moral exemplarism is an example, where in critique he observes the lack of a mechanism of atonement, raising the question of the necessity of Christ’s death, but also observes that exemplarism is an element, or implication of most models. Likewise, older models, such as the early models of Athanasius, and the satisfaction of approach of Anselm, are treated as far more formidable and important than often credited in modern treatments. His concluding treatment of union or participatory approaches most associated with Michael J. Gorman, suggest this may be a way forward, both drawing upon other models and drawing heavily on the biblical material of the corporate aspects of fallen and redeemed humanity as significant to the mechanism of atonement.

What marks this work is its even-handed discussion of the various models, focusing both on strengths and criticisms for each, understanding each in the context they were first framed. Contrary to the “rhetorical flourish” approach that many who respond to critiques of atoning violence, he shows how these are often question begging and tries to approach this in a way that takes the issue seriously. Each chapter provides a bibliography, and the book concludes with a more extensive bibliography of the literature. Crisp offers a scholarly introduction to contemporary discussions of the atonement that serves as a syllabus for more in depth study on this central doctrine of Christian faith.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

 

Theology I Would Re-read

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Theology books I would re-read. Photo © Bob Trube, 2020. 

I read quite a few theology books, which may be odd for some. All I can say is that if one believes, according to the Westminster Confession that “the chief end of human beings (“man” in the generic form) is to worship God and enjoy Him forever,” then it seems a worthy form of reading to explore the excellency of God, and how we might joyfully relate to this God. No offense if you see things differently, though the question of “chief end” is one we all must answer. Here is some of the theology, I would re-read. In fact, some of these I have re-read.

Garwood Anderson, Paul’s New Perspective. There has been much discussion of the “new perspective” on Paul. This careful study of Paul’s writings explores the possibility of development in Paul’s understanding, offering warrant for both “traditional” and “new” perspectives.

John Calvin, The Institutes of the Christian Religion.  One of the best summers I ever spent including working through these two volumes, marveling at one who loved God so deeply and reasoned so carefully.

Daniel L. Hawk, The Violence of the Biblical God. This is the best book I’ve read on the troubling Old Testament passages that connect Israel’s violence with God. Hawk allows for the disturbing complexity of the biblical witness that explores the messiness of God who is both in but not of the ancient Near Eastern world of Israel.

Matthew Levering, Dying and the Virtues. A probing exploration of the biblical virtues by which we live–and die. He revives the ancient pastoral conversation on what it means to make a good end to our lives.

J. I. Packer, Knowing God. No single book played a greater role in opening my eyes to the greatness of God and the joy of knowing Him. This was one to be read a few pages at a time. I’ve done so several times.

Michael Reeves, Delighting in the Trinity. The shortest book in the collection, but no less rich in its insights into the mystery of the Triune nature of God.

Fleming Rutledge, The Crucifixion. I spent Lent last year reading this work, leaving me in wonder at the death of the Son of God.

James K. A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom. Smith challenges the notion that all we need to do is get people to believe the right things. His theology of what it means to be human is to be desiring creatures, and that we believe what we practice, that “thick” practices shape our spiritual affections.

John R. W. Stott, The Cross of Christ. For many years, I was part of a reading group called the Dead Theologians Society. After reading this work together, one of our participants remarked that this was the best book we had read (in a group that had read Augustine, Luther, Calvin, Barth, and many others). Stott, with his typical clarity of expression and insight, sets forth the work of the cross, and his defense of substitution, not so popular nowadays, with depth and concision.

N.T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God. This is an absolutely magnificent study of the idea of the resurrection in “second temple” Judaism and the surrounding culture, and the evidences for the physical resurrection of Jesus.

One of the things all these works have in common is that they are works of conviction, that pulse with the passion for God of the authors, that elevates them from our image of theology as a dry and dusty discipline. There are many others that I could have added and I’d love to hear of those you would re-read. It’s just possible that I might choose to read them for the first time. I always love a book recommendation that says, “I would read it again.” In the area of theology, that tells me that the author has moved beyond the commonplace nostrums to a personal knowledge of the God of whom they write.